Parshat Shelach: The Sin of the Spies and Slander, Then and Now

Rabbi Dr. Lior and Rachel Kaminetsky were Straus-Amiel shlichim in Birmingham, England, where Rabbi Lior served as the rabbi of the Central United Synagogue

משפחת קמינצקי Kaminetzky Family
Photo Credit: Sapir Moshe

As a musician, I have a vivid memory of one specific recital some years ago, when I was still an MA student at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance in Jerusalem.  A large and diverse audience attended the concert, at the end of which many people approached me to share their feelings, express their gratitude and congratulate me on the excellent performance.  One after the other, people came over to say kind words.  And yet, I, aware of my own shortcomings in expressing the great many nuances of the piece and its subtleties, knew full well that my performance was far from perfect.  And so, I dampened the enthusiastic reactions of my well-wishers by sharing my professional and very critical opinion on my performance.  My mother, of blessed memory, noticed what was going on and urgently took me aside for a private talk. “Not only are you ruining their experience,” she said, “but you are also turning them into idiots! In fact, you are ruining your musical career with your own hands because now they will go and tell the others what an awful concert this was…”

This conversation made a lasting impression on me, and drew my attention to something mentioned in our portion of Shelach.  This is what the spies say: “… we were like locusts in our own eyes, and so we were in their eyes” (Bamidbar 13:33).

The spies who were sent to scout the land were not standard spies operating covertly to gather information about the enemy. Rather, they were leaders, the presidents of Israel, who were expected to serve as an example, to appreciate and express gratitude for the great miracles that God had performed for us in the Exodus from Egypt and in the desert, and that He will continue to perform for us upon entering the land. They were expected to be visionary individuals capable of looking beyond the surface of reality and seeing the inherent potential within it. However, the spies did not see themselves as leaders but rather as spies, and it is interesting to note that this is how they were also engraved in our consciousness. They did not understand their own power and the responsibility placed upon their shoulders, and in doing so, they not only diminished their own spirit but also the spirit of the people alongside them.

“In my understanding, this is the root of the sin of the spies – the self-disparagement in ourselves, in our abilities, and in the wonderful gifts that have been given to us on a silver platter. This causes us to lose self-confidence and, as a result, we see a dark and threatening reality around us, even though sometimes it is actually intended to benefit us.

The spies are able to identify that the land is “flowing with milk and honey,” and they even bring back abundant fruits as evidence. However, their lack of faith in themselves causes them to ignore the half-full cup and focus on the empty half, whether it be the real challenges that require divine assistance or their own interpretation of the reality they see.

They see “cities that are exceedingly large,” and they view this as a point of strength for the Canaanite people. If they had self-assurance, they would see it as evidence of the weakness and fearfulness of the Canaanite people, as a strong nation does not need fortifications but can freely roam in security.

They see dead people in the streets and interpret it as “a land that consumes its inhabitants,” whereas at least according to the words of Rava in the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Sotah 35a), the Holy One, blessed be He, took special care to ensure that when the spies arrived, the people of the land would be preoccupied with their own deaths, and their minds would be occupied during the spies’ visit.”

A negative perception, a distorted view, forecasting darkness – this causes tension and panic that is out of place, not only among the spies themselves but also among the majority of the people who are swayed by their leaders, as appears at the beginning of Chapter 14: “And all the congregation raised their voices and cried that night.” Their emotional response is so strong that it diminishes the miracles and goodness that have been done for them thus far, and they cause self-destruction, seeking to return to Egypt and die there. The strong fear and emotions blind their balanced perspective, and in their frenzy, they almost stone Joshua and Caleb for offering an alternative to the situation.

Contrary to what may seem to us, the greatest producers of gossip are not our haters or those seeking our harm, but rather we ourselves! The belittlement and self-criticism cause us and others to belittle us and speak ill of us, creating a reality of self-fulfilling prophecy.

The world is mostly not black and white, and there is always room for improvement and growth. However, there is constructive criticism and there is destructive criticism. There is a nuanced perception of reality that leads us to pay attention to dangers and be cautious of them, encouraging positive action and helping us cope with them more effectively. On the other hand, there is a negative and critical perception of reality that causes us to worry, lack faith, engage in self-silencing, and self-sabotage. The story of the spies teaches us an important lesson, that much of it begins within us, and it depends solely on us.

“Beliefs create reality” – that’s what I learned in the Avatar course I participated in. So let’s make an effort to learn from the sin of the spies and practice treating ourselves and those around us with proper respect. Let’s choose positive beliefs for ourselves and express them in positive and empowering words that will, God willing, rectify the sin of the spies and guide us on the path to the good land we aspire to be in.

The congregation of the Central United Synagogue in Birmingham, England is historically Zionist.  The new synagogue building was designed to meet the needs of the community, as it is today, and is used as both a synagogue as well as a community center.  Rabbi Lior and his family, who served the community between the years 2015 and 2019, launched some extraordinary projects and collaborations, such as a series of concerts for the community performed by the students of the prestigious Royal Birmingham Conservatoire; the Abrahamic Beit Midrash for spiritual leaders from all three religions; Hebrew lessons and Jewish Studies for Jews and non-Jews, and many more. 

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